Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Theater Kids

Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

There's a certain detached resentment that years of playing in pit orchestras breeds. No one's bringing you roses, and the only applause you can expect is the courtesy round when the cast deigns to wave at the conductor after taking their third or fourth bows. Without the backbone of your music, your rhythm, the people prancing about on stage would look pretty ridiculous indeed. But that doesn't matter. The Theater Kids, the ones who live for the show, the ones on stage, the ones who are on stage even when they're not on stage, this is their moment. You consign yourself to being an afterthought. But still you wait breathlessly for the invite to the cast party. If anyone remembers your name.

By the time I got to college I was done playing in orchestras, but because of the interdisciplinary humanities program I was enrolled in, I still had occasion to interact with plenty of Theater Kids. They were a different species than those I encountered in high school. Very few were proto-divas in the way they were back home, where the peculiar ennui of the small-city suburbs fertilized delusions of grandeur. They were not the obnoxiously ebullient children I'd encountered for years. No, these were a different lot. They wore scarves in the summer and hung out at the coffee shops across town, not the usual haunts closer to campus where the plebeians went. They smoked cloves. They had studied art history, knew about rhetoric and post-modernism, could rattle off the names of texts by German philosophers. They had been to Europe. They loved to talk. They touched your arm when making a point. And they were free, my God, they were so free, unencumbered by the strictures of conventional morality, canon, sexuality, social interaction. They were forever new, forever wild. They were bewitching.

Of course, they were illusions.

The more I interacted with the Theater Kids the more I grew to dread being compelled to spend time with them: in the dorms, at friends' parties, at humanities events, and especially in classes. Nearly every encounter was a one-sided trip into Too Much Information territory. The number of ways in which they were able to relate, say, Edmund Spencer's poetry or Native American creation myths to their own sexual or spiritual awakenings was astounding. Especially since these revelations were always conducted in cosmically inappropriate public forums, like 8:15 AM Intro to Renaissance Lit sessions. In their every behavioral tic there was an element of performance, a calculated attempt to concentrate attention on the performer. Everything was hyperbolically "meaningful." Conversations were full of words like "aesthetics" and "deconstruct"—words strategically deployed to encourage the appearance of intelligence—while utterly devoid of questions for the other participant. Unless, of course, that other participant was an authority figure who could somehow benefit them or a fellow Theater Kid, who would make a complementary show of genuine connection and understanding. In retrospect, I shouldn't be surprised I grew apprehensive about hanging out with 19-year-olds in berets who never shut up about their "craft."

The most heartbreaking thing about Theater Kids for me was that I really wanted to like them. I wanted to surround myself with people who could help me grow, who would help me understand new perspectives, who were different from the dopes I was used to back home. But too often, there just wasn't anything there besides compulsive self-promotion. Everything was indeed "meaningful," but only inasmuch as it related to them. They were, in short, the perfect target market for social media.

Nothing has taken me back to the feeling I used to get around Theater Kids as much as three games I've played recently: Braid, Limbo, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. I really wanted to like all three, but I can't help feeling they're really just Theater Kids—long on style, short on substance.

Braid is the game I liked least, and consequently the one I've spent the least time with. Picked it up for a few bucks on a recent Steam sale, and put it away after maybe an hour. I get what it's doing, believe me. It was all the gushing essays about it that made me feel like it was a must-play to begin with. I get the point about reversing time, trying to fix your mistakes, the futility of trying to erase regret. The time-reversal mechanic is an elegant way to convey that theme. I can dig that. But perhaps it's the fact that I played it three years after it first set the world on fire, but as a game, it's just not grabbing me. I could have gotten that theme just by reading about it; in this case, the play experience has added little to my understanding or appreciation of the theme. The essays on Braid, in my view, are infinitely more interesting than the game itself, which from what I experienced is largely jumping backwards on meatballs' heads and collecting jigsaw pieces and reading cryptic poetry. The art style is pretty, no doubt, but damned if this game doesn't ooze with "look at me!" sentiment, from the purple prose of the on-screen text to the assumption that I give a crap about Young Angus Young or what assembling his jigsaw puzzle might reveal. It's as if the game is screaming "I AM MEANINGFUL!" at you. It's interesting to contrast Braid with ilomilo, since both are gorgeously-stylized brain-twisters, but evoke very different reactions.

My feelings about Limbo are a little more complex. While I wouldn't ascribe the same flamboyant egotism to Limbo as I do to Braid, I agree with Mitch Krpata that it is conspicuous in drawing attention to itself. Mitch describes the game as "smoke and mirrors," dissecting the ways its changing rules are more "artifice" than "truth." I tend to agree; while Limbo's utter lack of instruction to the player is unique in this era of hand-holding, the whole affair smacks a bit of Dragon's Lair to me. That game, you may recall, was also famous for causing frequent death. Failure is the only instructional tool at the developer's command. That gets old quickly, especially given that for a game that requires precision, Limbo's controls are awfully sluggish. But more damning to me are the game's pretensions at meaning. It wants us to ask all these heavy questions—Who is this boy and what is this nightmare world? Why are these creatures and other kids out to get him? What about all the dead children's bodies? Are we in Purgatory, as the title suggests? But in reverting to buzzsaws and electrified walkways and rising-water puzzles, Limbo steps on its own foot. The questions become secondary to just figuring out how the game is screwing with you in this next puzzle. As Mitch said, it doesn't give us more than a hint of what's really interesting, electing instead to throw a whole lot more familiar junk at us and trust that we'll confuse hints of meaning for actual meaning. If that's not a prime Theater Kid trait, I don't know what is.

But the biggest disappointment of this group for me is clearly Sworcery, which I refuse to call by its absurd full title any longer. I had read so many fascinating things from pals I respect that this was the first app I bought when I recently acquired an iPad. My Kill Screen colleague Rob Dubbin's review was so brilliantly written that I was immediately sold.

To be sure, Sworcery is pretty. The music and sound, in particular, live up to the hype. The ascending whole-step riff that plays when you lift a Sprite up to the sky? Simple, subtle, and gorgeous. The ambient sound (e.g. the rustling of bushes) is wonderfully atmospheric. Despite the pixel-art style, which I think is starting to get kinda played out, you can't fault Sworcery on presentation. It doesn't hurt that it features one of the most natural-feeling implementations of touch controls I've yet seen.

By my goodness, is there a game there?

Its creators describe Sworcery as "an unusual genre-bending effort with an emphasis on sound, music & audiovisual style that has been positioned as 'a brave experiment in Input Output Cinema.'" That, right there, is the perfect encapsulation of what makes Sworcery a Theater Kid. That description sounds really fascinating and deep at first glance, but upon closer examination reveals itself to be only somewhat comprehensible. Look, I get that they're being somewhat satirical here. I get the laid-back attitude conceit. I love the idea of experimentation, of playing with genre and expectations. The surrounding trappings are just irritating as hell.

A few elements in particular turn me off in this regard. The first is the incessant prompts to Tweet things, which I suppose is a cool guerrilla marketing technique for an indie developer and which was obviously very successful. But it also reflects the constant need for attention—the figurative "shouting into a room"—that is endemic to both the medium of Twitter and to Theater Kids. Things are being said, but that they are being said by the person who's saying them is more important than what is being said.

The other element I can't get past is the slacker-speak of the narration. Again, I get that it's a stylistic choice and through its contrast with the conventions of the fantasy adventure genre, calls attention to the experimental nature of the game. But I find it grating for that very reason. The presentation can speak for itself. You don't need to bludgeon us with hipness. Twitter gives us enough of that crap already. I close out of my play sessions feeling like an uptight nerd who's just left a gathering of cool kids who barely acknowledged him.

Sworcery feels to me like it is working really hard—and is obviously fairly successful in doing so—to concentrate attention on itself as a performance, if that makes any sense. Chapters close with a cigar-smoking narrator talking at you from a stage, with a curtain backdrop and everything. The spinning record is a constant motif, an image of musical performance. To me, Sworcery wants to be more performance art than game. That's fine; the game even explicitly warns us of that in its description of itself. But it's the peculiarly calculating nature of its execution that gives it that uncomfortable Theater Kid feeling.

Look, I don't mean to sound overly negative here. There are terrific, worthwhile elements to all three of these games, just as I'm sure many of those Theater Kids grew into terrific, worthwhile human beings (or, you know, were all along). But I've always found the things that were most meaningful in my life never made a show of being meaningful. They didn't need the applause. They just quietly earned it.


  1. I love Braid and Limbo. Not as "statements" but as games - Braid did a great job of taking a simple mechanic and exploring it thoroughly - time travel became alternate timelines, time dialation, time permanence, time-as-movement, and time reversal. Each mechanic was used thoroughly and, for me, required thought and careful consideration. I was deeply entertained by the gameplay. sure, Blow was kind of obnoxious about the specifics, and the gameFAQs theories about the exact nature of the plot are atrocious. but the basic themes of regret and time travel are extremely well explored and well-contained by the mechanics and basic premise (well, except for the last bits of text in the game). I thought it was aesthetically quite beautiful, with gorgeous backgrounds and clever enemy designs that were a constant reference back to Mario Bros.

    Speaking of Mario: that game gets away with having a bizarre, nonsensical aesthetic. Do you look for meaning in Mario? I would suspect not. Does Mario seem to broadcast it's own importance? I don't think so, despite its fiscal success. Blow trumpets Braid's "meaning" (which, again, I find very unfortunate and I divorce him from my experience with the game as much as possible), but I'm not sure Limbo toots its own horn.

    Limbo was a good masocore platformer. Krapta thought the fickle rules were unfair, but that's the point of masocore - there are genre conventions that train players, and masocore exists to invert those expectations to create an interesting dynamic between player and designer.

    Limbo does not "ask questions". In fact there is almost zero literal text in the game besides the title. it does give statements in the form of its aesthetics and mechanics - a masocore puzzle/platformer using a dark, shadowy palette. Those two line up in my mind - masocore does imply a certain dark enjoyment. for that matter, Limbo is mythically dark and full of sin (ie danger).

    I'm not sure why that "asks questions", since it sits in a self-contained, consistent world. it may be dark and shadowy, but it is obviously about redemption (which again fits within Limbo). why do specifics matter? does the boy need to have a name? does the girl need a relationship? does that materially alter the basics of the story? would understanding the savages or the spider or the progression from jungle to hotel to machine alter the fundamental concept of boy-rescues-girl or the theological concept of purgatory? I would answer "no" to all these, and argue that the formless, shadowy nature of limbo is an excellent match for a formless, shadowy "plot" and not much else is needed besides that aesthetic agreement. There is some part of it that signals "arthouse" to you (perhaps a cogent aesthetic or something) and so you search for meaning without finding it.

    I might have a better response to this in a few days once I've thought it through. right now I'm trying to get through Eco's Role of the Reader which discusses the ways we extract meanings from text, and that might help me out.

  2. Hi Zach,

    Thanks for your response! I'll try to address your comments here.

    1. Re: Braid — I believe you! I'm not saying it's a bad game, merely that it didn't grab me because it struck me as particularly self-important. So much so that I was uninterested in digging deeper to discover the cool implementations of the mechanic you describe. Also, great point about divorcing the creator from the creation. That's a tricky thing.

    2. Interesting point about Mario, but I think Mario gets away with it because it defined and continues to define the platformer genre. It also makes no pretensions of being "about" anything other than what it is, which is silly, goofy fun. Braid seems to be more a comment on the genre, which is great, but that does invite us to play with a focus on "what it means," which can be distracting or off-putting, at least for me.

    3. The reason I think Limbo "asks questions" is because it presents us with several scenes that seem intended to provoke an emotional response predicated on implied story. For example, the dark image of a lynched child's corpse makes me want to know more about this shadowy world, to combine that with other images to form a coherent picture of what the world is and then use that to infer some kind of narrative or theme. "It's dark here and that fits the mechanic" doesn't do it for me in itself. Mitch put it better than I did in his piece; read his argument about the encounter with the savage boys, which goes nowhere. I'm not saying one or the other of us is "right" here, just that I didn't feel the game effectively synthesized its (you must admit) conspicuously striking imagery into a coherent whole. I find the implications much more interesting than being beaten down by yet another puzzle. But then, I've always been a wimp. :)

  3. Man, I think you more than justified your feelings in this piece. Personally I'm often way more inclined to just go "WTF is this shit?" and quit playing in disgust, so your commitment to identifying the reasons behind your reaction is pretty laudable, IMO.

  4. Zach and I are both working through The Role of The Reader, so sorry about that, because it's going to inform my response here too.

    Heavy sigh. Let's see.

    Braid fails. I agree there. Not on every level—Hellman's art is lovely, and the neat trick of the ending has more emotional resonance than is perhaps earned—but it fails the only test that matters for a game so concerned with establishing that it has a deep meaning: being comprehensible to anyone but its author.

    Blow is a very clever gameplay designer, and I don't doubt his sincerity as a creator, or his bravery as a businessman. But as an artist, you have him down pat. He's an assclown, a self-aggrandizing theater kid who insists that you should pronounce the word "artiste." Blow has the courage of his convictions, in that he's willing to create a game which is emphatically not accessible to everyone, but he is also unable to guide those players who remain—those of us who would like to think we have the knowledge, the chops and the critical skills to "get" Braid—toward a satisfying (or simply comprehensible) reading of the game. "Something something atom bomb, something something self-image" does not cut it.

    With regard to Limbo, I'm more sympathetic to your argument about the game's heavy-handedness than I am to Krpata's whining about its difficulty, which seems to me to indicate (as Zach suggests) a fundamental misunderstanding of its place in the genre. Mechanically, I enjoy games that slap me across the face and shout "wrong! Stupid!" when I don't get it the first ten times. Maybe you and Mitch are Montessori players; I'll take my training from Pai Mei any day.

    Limbo is not subtle, and its effort to be dark and disturbing is distractingly self-conscious at times. But I found that the understated nature of several of the game's elements—sound, color, pace—provided a sort of balance to its hypersaturated blackness. The game was like a cute goth girl: it's not my look, and I don't usually go for it, but damn if it doesn't work on her.

    Haven't played Sworcery yet, but I've got an iPad winging its way toward me.

    @Ben: what games do you like aside from those by Clint Hocking? I would have pegged you for a fan of the ambitious/pretentious indie stuff.

    Great post as always :)

  5. Max - I do like the pretentious indie stuff! Except when it doesn't do anything for me!

  6. @Max: I finished Limbo yesterday, and here's my main issue with it: For a game that sets itself up to be a very different kind of platformer - encouraging a more thoughtful, measured approach to puzzles - it sure requires a lot of twitchy reflexes. My problem was never that I couldn't suss out what to do, but that I simply lacked the dexterity to execute the moves. Most of my deaths were not from trial and error puzzle-solving, but from a lack of precision in executing the commands. I also felt the controls were somewhat sluggish, especially given the demand for precision.

    What's more disappointing than sluggish controls, though, is the squandering of the promise in Limbo's really engrossing first third. After you kill the spider the game regresses into a series of timing and gravity puzzles that rely far too much on reflexes, and tosses out all the interesting narrative imagery it had accumulated up to that point. The humanity is (literally) gone. The ending was clever, but I never felt as if the game was rewarding me sufficiently for progressing through obstacles. By contrast, think of the Portal games, which not only expertly blend narrative and puzzles, but also build challenge not by throwing a bunch of new stuff at the player, but by increasing the complexity of the obstacles such that the player has to combine already mastered skills in new and fun ways. That's why I feel smart playing Portal and irritated playing Limbo. While I appreciate Playdead's creativity and visual style, I think Limbo's puzzles rewrote the rules a little too often to form a cohesive and satisfying whole.

  7. I find the vague yet impenetrable hipsterism that is quickly coming to define indie game culture pretty fucking annoying.

  8. John, I absolutely agree with this post. I took a break from something I’ve been working for hours today and it’s just refreshing to finally know that I am not alone in my feelings towards these games (our experiences with Braid are basically mirrored).

    But I smile at your chosen metaphor here because I spent quite a few credit hours of my (temporarily abandoned but not for much longer, I swear) short time in college as a “Theater Kid” in the clothes on an English major. From my experience in that newly minted 4-year-degree college (that was just previously a community college), your example mostly describes photography/art kids. And that’s just as well, I guess.